The following is a short intro to my book Malmhattanism, published by Nordic Academic Press in 2021 and currently only available in Swedish. Some of the content has appeared in English previously (here & here). I plan to translate some passages from the book and post them here in the future.
Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city, located in the far south of the country. Like all cities, it is a place of many seemingly incompatible identities. Swedes sometimes call Malmö ‘the Chicago of Sweden’. While this is primarily a reference to the city’s reputation as a city with a high crime rate – by Swedish standards, it should be noted – the nickname may well also allude to the city’s relationship to skyscrapers.* Malmö identifies itself through its tall buildings like no other Scandinavian city; the emblematic Turning Torso, Scandinavia’s tallest building, has become shorthand for the city itself.
Malmhattanism** analyzes the shifting roles that skyscrapers have been imagined to play in the development of Malmö over the last seventy years, what could loosely be put as skyscraper ideologies. There is no economic incitement for constructing skyscrapers or tall buildings in Malmö: land is nowhere near expensive enough to motivate their construction. The book’s undergirding question is this: Why are there skyscrapers in Malmö? To uncover the reasons for building skyscrapers requires casting a wider net than architectural historiography traditionally does. Its narrow focus on the architect and the architect’s work would give us only a fragmental answer here; instead, it is necessary to situate the skyscraper in a variety of contexts – architectural, certainly, but also political and financial, historical, and contemporary. From these emerges a story of how skyscrapers and tall buildings have come to define the identity of Malmö, what they were intended to do in and for the city, and how the ideologies legitimizing the skyscrapers have transformed.
The skyscraper – the building type of the exception, as Manfredo Tafuri once put it – must invariably be rationalized in one way or another. It is, after all, supposed to be primarily a pragmatic building, “A machine that makes the land pay” as Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building said. Its symbolic capital is, in theory, a kind of bonus. The reality, in Malmö, Sweden, and elsewhere, is the other way around: symbolic capital trumps use. How, then, is this symbolic capital intended to work in relation to the city? The answer to this question is far more complex than one would imagine; depending on the perspective one investigates, different answers are given by different people at different times. While the ambition in one case may simply be to construct a flagship building, the ambition in another case may not even be to actually construct the skyscraper in reality, but to use the symbolic capital of the proposition for other purposes.
Unpacking the question entails understanding how skyscrapers are intended to be connected to the city that surrounds them, as well as the roles they were intended to play in the urban development. Here, the character of the developer and her ideology becomes important, as the aim is no longer to maximize returns on investment by reproducing the largest possible floorplan the most profitable number of times permitted, but something more multi-faceted. The book explores this relationship with focus on the interplay between the developer and architect and their respective ideologies.
The book is divided into three parts, each of which broadly corresponds to one skyscraper ideology and one time period. Each ideology is a particular combination of global idea complexes interpreted through a local lens. Consequently, the development follows global trends with unmistakable local twists connected to the specific context of Malmö.
Skyscrapers were a latecomer to Malmö. The first part of the book covers the years 1950–1980, when the skyscraper was part of the industrial city’s rush toward a brighter tomorrow. The most extraordinary example constructed in these years was Kronprinsen, an enormous mixed-use complex – the size of four city blocks – with a 27-storey skyscraper clad in blue ceramic tiles that sometimes seems to melt into the sky above. One could find most of the functions of a city within the complex’s walls. Its developer, Hugo Åberg – a notorious contractor and developer who made his fortune undertaking construction projects for others – financed Kronprinsen’s development himself and labelled it ‘a city within the city’. Completed in 1964, Kronprinsen is a spectacular hybrid of Swedish social democratic building – the flats are all rental units intended for a working class population – and the American-style, car-oriented entertainment culture of the 1950s: the complex featured a bowling alley, a sky lounge, an outsize parking garage with an underground service station, a large variety-show restaurant, a department store and many other programmes associated with consumption and entertainment that stood out in social democratic Sweden. Åberg even managed to circumvent the regulations prohibiting television advertisement by providing a closed-circuit television channel, produced and broadcast within the complex, thereby suspending, as Rem Koolhaas would put it, ‘unwelcome laws’ in this hyper-urban island in the city.
In addition to Kronprinsen, this part of the book also looks at the head office of shipbuilder Kockums designed by Paul Hedqvist (1958) and the newspaper complex of Sydsvenska Dagbladet by Sture Kelfve (1965).
The second part of the book spans from 1980 to 2010. The city’s fortune took a turn for the worse in the 1980s as shipyards and factories closed their gates, and Malmö became a sleepy backwater town – a fate shared with numerous industrial harbour cities across Sweden and Europe. To break free from the vicious cycle of unemployment and poverty, the city set out to reinvent itself in the 1980s and 90s, partially through the construction of several skyscrapers, objects large enough that they were imagined to be able to transform the city’s identity and turn its fortunes. This was by no means unique to Malmö, or Sweden even.
Following a study trip to Manhattan in the early 1980s, the social democratic political leadership proposed a skyscraper that featured a Sheraton hotel as a way to save the city from its misfortunes. The skyscraper was to be funded by welfare-state actors: building societies and insurance associations closely connected with the workers’ movement. The idea of an enormous Sheraton hotel at the very heart of the social democratic city was provocative, and multiple protest movements were rapidly formed. What followed was dramatic and included cliffhangers, startling revelations, and betrayal. At one point, the chief city planner headed a protest march against the proposed development. At another, rival politicians sought to scrap the plans, lower the height of the building or sabotage it in any way possible – only to end up building it taller than the previous administration’s plans. When the building was completed in 1989, its time had already passed, and today most of Malmö residents willfully ignore or unthink the results.
A second skyscraper of this era is The Turning Torso – a white, twisting tower designed by the Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava that was opened in 2005. The building’s sculptural form has since become the emblem for the city itself. Iconic architecture around the world is frequently associated with cultural- or public institutions, but this skyscraper is only accessible to the small, privileged group of residents with luxurious flats in the tower. The skyscraper was constructed by the housing association HSB, a key provider of workers’ housing in the welfare state, in an attempt to reinvent the association to provide housing for the future. Behind the Turning Torso project is another strange tale of huge ambitions, rash decisions, and staggering expense accounts. Other skyscrapers discussed in this part include Scandinavian Tower by Gert Wingårdh (never completed), Malmö Tower by C.F. Møller (never completed) and The Point, also by C.F. Møller (2020).
The third part, or ideology, discussed in the book is what I call Malmhattanism. The period in question is 2010 to 2020. There is a shift compared to the iconic architecture that preceded it, but it is not necessarily an anti-thesis – perhaps more of an amplification as the focus moves from the building as an object to the urban milieu as atmosphere. The aim was to provide an urban sensation by changing the urban background. The skyscraper becomes a planning instrument in the experience economy. Although urban design is habitually intended to produce variation and atmosphere on the street level, Malmhattanism does this on a megalomaniacal scale. The aim is not only changing the experience in the street or the neighbourhood, but of the city itself. Walter Benjamin famously noted that architecture is an art form experienced by subjects in distraction. Malmhattanism is transforming the distracted experience of the city by visually dissolving architecture into a carefully constructed atmosphere of casual, metropolitanesque urbanism.
The most orthodox example of this ideology is probably the never-constructed skyscraper Törnrosen Tower or Culture Casbah. Here, the previously monolithic shape of the skyscraper is dissolved into what appears to be a stylized vertical favela, as if it were, to borrow a phrase from Carol Willis, an expression of ‘capitalist vernacular’ rather than architecture proposed and financed by the city. The exterior gives the impression of tensions, forces, and dynamism; in actuality, the building was intended to be operated by one sole (public/private) corporation. The dynamic exterior and the rigid interior produce what is best described as an inversion of Koolhaas’ conceptualization of early twentieth century Manhattan skyscrapers’ ‘lobotomy’ from Delirious New York,where the well-ordered exterior masks the ravaging dynamic capitalism raging inside. In Malmhattanism, the dynamic exterior masks the monolithic corporate structure inside. The other skyscraper discussed in this part is Malmö Live, designed by Schmitt Hammer Lassen (2015).
Together, these three parts show a series of transformations of how the skyscraper is imagined in its relationship to the surrounding city. Over the decades, the reasons for constructing skyscrapers in Malmö have shifted from being detached from the city and have increasingly become understood as part of, or even the essence of, Malmö-ness. For the skyscraper, this is an interesting journey from a pariah, pushing the city’s planning rules as far as possible for profit (see Tafuri) to a present, where the city finances skyscrapers, deeming the skyscraper a prime instrument to achieve a vibrant economy. The question remains: does the vibrant economy produce skyscrapers? Or do the skyscrapers produce the vibrant economy, as Malmö speculates? Is there a risk of mistaking cause for effect when it comes to skyscrapers?
Reviews in Swedish:
Dan Hallemar in Sydsvenskan (paywall)
Katarina Rundgren in Arkitektur 7:2021.
* There is an abundance of skyscraper definitions around. In the book, I opt for a definition of relative height, as opposed to physical characteristics, function or absolute height. Relative height means a building constructed to be significantly taller than the surrounding urban fabric. Some of the skyscrapers included in the book would scarcely qualify as skyscrapers in a contemporary perspective, but relative height permits me to follow historical development.
** Malmhattanism is a portmanteau combining Koolhaas’ Manhattanism from Delirious New York, the unspoken ideology of turning life into fantasy, and Malmhattan, an affectionate wandering nickname employed in Malmö to any new development with seemingly Manhattan-like proportions.